LONGTIME FANS OF Ludmilla Petrushevskaya in both Russian and English know and love her for the unflinching portrayals of the underside of human existence. Beginning her career in the late 1960s, Petrushevskaya could get very little published during Soviet times. The reason was not politics, as her works are outwardly apolitical; rather, it was her unrelenting portrayal of life’s cruelty and people’s foulness, which went directly against the ideology of the state. Petrushevskaya’s works feature all manner of degradation and violence: drunken copulating strangers who end up in a urine-soaked bed; bodies ravaged by both illness and medical treatment; mothers beating and sometimes killing their children. Even after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Petrushevskaya began to be published much more freely, her work was greeted with controversy. She was accused of producing chernukha, which, as scholar Helena Goscilo has explained, roughly translates as “grime and slime,” a charge often levied against early post-Soviet writers whose works dealt with the dark aspects of the human condition, frequently manifested in violence inflicted on the body.
More sophisticated readers, however, hailed Petrushevskaya as a fresh new voice in Russian literature. She also garnered critical acclaim. Her masterpiece, the 1992 novel Vremya noch (The Time: Night, 1994), in which a notoriously unreliable and painfully manipulative narrator tells the stories of three generations of women in her family who perpetuate a cycle of abuse, was shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize. Over the years, she has become one of Russia’s premier writers, amassing both a wide readership and many literary prizes, most recently being nominated for the Neustadt Prize. And it should be noted that, even more recently, she returned a state prize awarded to her by Vladimir Putin in response to his attempt to shut down Memorial, a Russian human-rights group that preserves the history of victims of Stalinist terror and state repression. In a delightfully unexpected twist, several years ago, she added another career to her long list of accomplishments: that of a cabaret singer, whose music videos are charmingly eccentric, not least in showing off the fancy hats with which she’s come to be associated.
Thanks to English-language translators, Petrushevskaya’s popularity in Russia has carried over to the English-speaking world. Sally Laird’s translations of Bessmertnaya lyubov (1988; Immortal Love, 1995), a collection of many of Petrushevskaya’s most well-known short stories, and The Time: Night introduced her to English speakers (while both are now sadly out of print, used copies can still be found online). Anna Summers has done much to popularize Petrushevskaya’s writing, producing a number of translations, including There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales (2009, translated with Keith Gessen), There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories (2013), and There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In: Three Novellas about Family (2014). The titles don’t beat around the bush, underscoring both Petrushevskaya’s unrelenting focus on the ways people inflict emotional and physical violence on each other and themselves as well as the occasional faux naïveté of her style.
Against this background, readers who for years have been reveling in Petrushevskaya’s dark vision, as well as first-timers who come to her through The New Adventures of Helen: Magical Tales, will find very different material in Jane Bugaeva’s swiftly flowing, humorous translation. This collection gathers Petrushevskaya’s fairy tales for adults, published under one cover in Russian in 1997; some other selections from that Russian volume have previously appeared in There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales. To be sure, there are still plenty of human vices in these pages. But instead of a world in which degradation reigns supreme, here goodness prevails, aided by a large dose of magic.
Mystical creatures, objects with supernatural properties, and the like are integral to these tales. In the title story, “The New Adventures of Helen,” the birth of the beautiful protagonist, a modern-day incarnation of Helen of Troy, prompts a resident wizard who is anxious to prevent another war to provide her with a mirror that makes anyone who looks into it vanish. In “Nose Girl,” magic makes Nina’s body parts disappear and reappear as she tries to entice her true love, while in “The Prince with Gold Hair,” an exiled queen undertakes a dangerous adventure with her son, whose hair is literally made of gold, watched over by a magical star. The eponymous sisters in “Nettle and Raspberry” fall in love with the same man, a complication made even more complicated by a childhood curse, yet mitigated by a red flower that acts as a talisman. “Two Sisters” features another set of female siblings who find themselves turned from their 80-plus-year-old selves into teenagers through a magic ointment and have to navigate life for a second time. “The Story of an Artist” tells of an impoverished painter who suddenly finds that people and objects he paints disappear from the world. “Queen Lir” has a whimsically absurd atmosphere, depicting the escapades of an aging monarch who goes off to live outside the palace with her great-granddaughter, Princess Alice, an allusion to the madcap adventures of Alice in Wonderland.
For all the magic, certain elements in this collection will be familiar to frequent Petrushevskaya readers. While disavowing any affiliation with feminism — a tradition among many Russian women writers — Petrushevskaya has consistently produced works that upend gender clichés. The protagonist in The Time: Night may be an unreliable narrator, but she is a strong, intelligent woman who steadfastly battles a hostile social and familial environment (the latter largely of her own making). In a much less graphic way, the theme of gender subversion runs through “The New Adventures of Helen,” which satirizes society’s obsession with women’s physical appearance: becoming invisible by looking into the magic mirror, Helen “was causing no battles and no wars,” a state of affairs that eventually lets her have a life with her beloved instead of being made the object of men’s affections against her will. In “Nose Girl,” Nina’s attempt to exchange her huge nose for a smaller version to make herself attractive to the man she loves, which in turn causes her to lose other body parts, is shown to be pointless because her love wants the real her: giving her magic medicine, he says, “I’m only restoring what was there before.” Arguably the zaniest story in the collection, “Queen Lir,” the very title of which, along with the name of the queen’s son, Kordel, is a gender-bending allusion to William Shakespeare, features an age-defying older woman who through a series of hilarious mishaps causes havoc around town, including by riding a stolen motorcycle while sporting “a leather jacket covered in studs, thigh-high suede boots[,] […] and a pair of white jeans” along with a shaved head and “a three-inch-tall green mohawk.”
On the other hand, the portrayal of families here — and of mothers in particular — is a departure for Petrushevskaya. Her strongest subversion of gender clichés is radically challenging Russian cultural and literary propagations of women’s “natural” ability to nurture. Her mother figures are anything but maternal, and the family, in direct contrast to Soviet glorifications, is various shades of dysfunctional. In contrast, here family is a safe haven, and both mothers and fathers love and take care of their children. “The Prince with Gold Hair” is the story of a woman protecting both her child and her elderly parents, with the “coronation of the new king” an abiding image of strong familial ties as bulwark against the world. Family as refuge is likewise a theme in “Two Sisters,” where the plaintive cry of the two rejuvenated and lonely teenagers that they “need a mother” is answered by a woman whom they save in turn. Most of the stories, whether children are present or not, end with happy couplings, helped by fantastical beings and objects.
Yet The New Adventures of Helen: Magical Tales continuously mediates between the magical and the real. Alongside witches and wizards, these stories feature New Russian billionaires and destitute pensioners, high school teachers and rebellious teenagers, people in love and yearning for love. In “The Story of an Artist,” a character opines with regard to art materials that “[n]o one wants that stuff,” as the story addresses the long-debated question of art’s role in a money-oriented society. In “Nettle and Raspberry,” as Nettle throws away Raspberry’s magical red flower out of jealousy, the narrator notes that “the flower […] began its march down the path everything takes to leave this world — a path that leads far, far away into the realm of forgotten things that lies deep in the heart of the earth,” broaching, if whimsically, the very real themes of oblivion and death. Although showcasing a different aspect of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s writing, The New Adventures of Helen: Magical Tales exhibits her pervasive poignancy and sardonic humor and is as compelling in its own way as her more serious, harder-hitting prose.